“Let’s welcome,” the announcer says into the microphone, “our Father in the Lord, Pastor Promise!”
Pastor Promise rises from the chair beside his wife and strides to the pulpit to raucous applause and musical instruments playing rousing melodies. He is 39, fair-complexioned, with sad eyes and cheeks that droop a little. He is the leader of a growing church that is becoming popular with young people, all glory to God.
If anyone told him three years ago he would be a popular, well-loved pastor, he would have smiled tightly and said “I claim it in Jesus’ name”, the way people did when they didn’t really believe something could happen, but they had to affirm it because someone declared something positive for them, just like people said “Back to sender” whenever someone said something negative.
His had been the kind of life where it seemed like the world wanted to just punish. He was penniless and unemployed, and one day, he found himself homeless too when he was evicted from his rented self-contain house. He’d wandered into a church and spent the night there.
That night, as he likes to tell it, he had a dream. He was walking in an unharvested cornfield that stretched far as the eyes could see, and an angel, glowing and majestic, appeared above him with a sickle and a hoe and told him: “We need you. Go. Harvest.” He’d awoken that day convinced that God had called him to be a pastor, so he’d told the pastor about the dream, and started borrowing money for a small building. After weeks of fasting to prepare spiritually, and of borrowing and building, he’d completed the makeshift building and started.
These days, Pastor Promise walks around with a small dreamy smile, his demeanour a picture of relaxed contentment. He wears this smile as he walks to the pulpit.
He hugs the announcer, and he breathes in his smell, like he does every Sunday. Something citrusy, like oranges. Delightful. The announcer lets go and hands him the microphone. Pastor Promise feels a tiny, almost imperceptible sadness as the announcer walks off. The hug felt amazing.
“Praise God!” he says, looking out at the congregation. They look expectant.
“Halleluyah!” they scream, the sound bouncing off the walls. The small, contented smile appears on Pastor Promise’s face again.
Someone comes into the office after the service. He is the new assistant pastor, hired by the council of pastors. He is even younger than Pastor Promise. He has the kind of face that you can describe as innocent. Fat, almost cherubic cheeks. Tiny mouth. Guileless eyes. Clean-shaven.
“Glory to God sir,” he says. “Your sermon was powerful.”
“Thank God,” Pastor Promise replies, leaning on the table towards him. “You did a great job today. Especially because this is your first day.”
He smiles, and Pastor Promise feels a tingle, a gathering excitement. He is suddenly aware of every single detail in the room. The grills in the AC turning, directing cold air every which way; a fly perched on the table; the assistant pastor’s innocent-looking face.
He notices then that he is leaning forward.
“Flee,” he suddenly hears. He flinches and leans back a bit too quickly, knocking over his sermon note.
“Careful sir,” the assistant pastor says.
He nods and motions for him to leave, barely hiding his edginess, uttering a small “Thank you. I’ll see you later”.
“Flee,” the voice says again.
‘Flee’ was what his father told him when he was 14 and he had found him looking at cut-out photos from a magazine and in the beginnings of a masturbation. His father had stared at him, shock and disbelief battling for prominence on his face, with rage rapidly gathering at the periphery.
“Promise, what are you doing?” he said in Yoruba, his voice almost a whisper, gesturing at the pictures. It was of two mostly naked men in different poses holding and kissing themselves sensually, their smooth, chiselled bodies tangled together. In some of the pictures, the men’s eyes stared defiantly at his father, as if goading him.
“Promise,” he said again, his voice higher this time, with an overt hint of menace sharp as a blade. “I will not ask again. I said what is this?”
Promise was plastered against the wall, terrified. His father had punished him before, lashing him with koboko for failing in school or making him ‘pick pin’ for hours for filching meat from the stew. But this? He knew this was different. This was more grievous, and Promise wished he could just melt into the wall and disappear.
“Sir,” he spluttered in English. There was a dramatic cadence to the voices that heightened the emotion. One screaming in Yoruba, the other pleading desperately in perfect English. “Sorry sir. I’m so sorry sir. I’m so sorry sir.”
“You’re looking at these pictures? In my house?”
“I’m sorry sir. Please don’t be angry sir.”
“You want to be like them, abi?”
“No sir. Please don’t be angry sir.”
Promise’s father had told him then that he wasn’t angry. Far from it. Then he had told Promise to wait there. So, Promise had stood there, pensive and sweating, waiting for judgement. His mother walked into the room. She looked cowed, her back hunched and her eyes wide, tiptoeing carefully as if she didn’t want to be noticed.
“Promise,” she said.
“Promise, what did you do?” She always did this whenever he was being punished, asked him what he did.
“It was pictures, Mummy. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll beg him,” she said. “But please stop making your Daddy angry because you know how he is. You know.”
His father stormed back into the room, holding the pictures. He looked calm. His hands were not shaking as they usually did when he was angry. He wasn’t yelling. He just looked at Promise, his eyes full of disgust. Promise had never seen him with that look before. It made him feel small and unwanted, like discarded underwear.
“Daddy,” his mother said, sidling up to his father and rubbing his shoulders. “Anything he did, forgive him. Shey you know that’s how children behave…”
“See what your son was looking at,” he interrupted, thrusting the pictures at her. Whenever he was angry, Promise was always ‘your son’or ‘your child’. “See the nonsense your child is looking at? And he was using his hands to play with himself too.”
Promise was even more terrified then. His father’s voice was too calm, too measured for what Promise saw in his eyes. He didn’t pay attention to his mother, who was looking at the pictures slowly, almost leisurely.
“Promise,” she said. She looked at Promise like he had two heads growing out of his nostrils. “You?”
“Yes, him,” his father said. “Your son.”
“Please Mummy…” he began to plead, then stopped, stunned into silence when she turned and left the room, letting the pictures drop to the floor. Promise felt utterly alone then, separated from the world by a deep, dank chasm. His world turned blurry with tears. He almost didn’t notice his father pick up the pictures, march to him, and drag him off the floor.
“Stand,” his father had barked. “Go to the backyard now.”
Promise stumbled to the backyard. The sun began to slap him mercilessly, as if punishing him too. Then his father had told him that as his punishment, Promise was going to burn the pictures himself.
He watched Promise strike the match and set the pictures on fire. Then before Promise dropped the paper on the ground to burn, his hand clamped down on Promise’s, holding it in place. Promise watched the pictures burn, almost in slow motion, seeing the flames ravenously creep closer and closer to his thumb and fingers gripping the end of the paper. Then the flames touched the thumb. The pain pierced into Promise’s thumb and made him dizzy and he screamed.
“This is how those people burn in hell when they die,” his father said, the tone calm and casual as Promise’s screams tore through the air. “You see how it is? Can you feel it? That’s how you will feel when you do that thing. That’s how the fire will burn your whole body. The next time the devil tempts you to do this, flee. Flee.”
He could barely hear anything. He just screamed.
“Yes! Yes daddy! Please! Please!”
Then his father let go of his hand and the paper dropped to the floor, the flames almost dead. Promise’s thumb felt like a lump of burning charcoal and there, already forming, was a huge blister.
“Promise, will you do that again?” his father asked.
“No sir,” Promise stammered out.
It worries Pastor Promise, these feelings he has. These days, he doesn’t even go near the assistant pastor, who is named Beulah. The name is beautiful and rolls off the tongue whenever Promise says it. Sometimes, that is all his mind does, repeat ‘Beulah’ over and over. And the more he sees Pastor Beulah, the worse everything gets.
These days, Pastor Promise arrives at his office and greets everyone normally but he doesn’t stop for a brief chat as usual. He looks a bit stressed, and his contented smile is rarely there. The workers think he is on a dry fast. He has not counselled for a week, he sends them all to his wife or Beulah. Looking at someone and giving them Biblical advice as they peer at you with trusting eyes and say “Thank you Pastor. God increase you sir” has a way of throwing your shortcomings starkly in your face. He is the one-eyed man leading the blind, except that he is also blind and doesn’t know the way at all.
He spends a lot of his time shuttered up, praying for deliverance and searching the Bible. He receives condemnation from everywhere. His mind frequently rails at him that he is a man of God and Satan is winning in his life. His mind’s voice has been filled with utter disgust lately, and a lot of the time, when it speaks, Pastor Promise sinks to his knees, asking for forgiveness from sin and for his unclean mind to be cleansed. Sometimes, the condemnation comes from remembering his father’s venomous words and his mother turning away. His thumb always begins to itch badly when he remembers, as though the fire that devoured that magazine picture is still there, burning palpably, and then he imagines his whole body filled with the piercing pain of the fire, slowly being cooked forever.
Sometimes, it is Bible verses that condemn him, reminding him of Sodom and Gomorrah and its brutal divine destruction, of all the laws in Leviticus, of Paul’s letters. These passages are marked in red, and each time Pastor Promise reads it, he marks it again. The red feels like an indictment, like angry, disappointed godly scoldings to himself.
One time, Promise condemned himself. He took those verses to the pulpit and preached an angry sermon against homosexuality called The Wages of Sin, railing against himself and his feelings.
“Some of you,” he said, wiping his face with a towel “You’re excited when you see a man. Your body will be shaking. It is not how Jehovah made things to be. Satan has captured you! Flee, for the end is destruction! Cry out to Yahweh for deliverance today!” He prayed for sinners during the altar call, leading them to Christ and trying to stop saying Beulah in his head.
He cannot avoid Beulah all the time, though, and he cannot bear the turmoil alone for much longer. He knows it. His fluttering heart and blushing cheeks know it too. So, he decides to tell his wife, Mummy Joyce.
Pastor Promise met Mummy Joyce when he started his church. The church was still housed in a contraption of a building, held together by roughly hammered nails, rough wood and tarpaulin. She had walked in as a new member, young and unassuming, Bible in hand. The only-four members then all went to welcome her and she introduced herself as Joyce and said ‘The Holy Spirit led me here. He said I should come’ in this very intense, determined way that forced you to believe everything she said. Promise would find out that this was her usual way.
She had taken her intensity and poured it into the new church. She sang in the choir, stood in as an usher sometimes, did the church accounts, went out enthusiastically to spread the gospel. The church grew bigger through her efforts. Promise watched her zip around every day in her frenzied way and was grateful for her.
They were alone together a lot of the time, and Promise liked her because she made him laugh a lot. He liked her because any time she smiled, crow’s feet spread from the corner of her eyes like delicate whiskers and made her look pretty. He liked her because she cooked for him a lot and her egusi was stellar. He liked her because she helped the church. He liked her because she went after anything she needed, with her trademark intensity, paying no mind to any impediments, which was exactly the way she came up to him one day and told him that she had been praying.
“I’ve seen it. The Holy Spirit has told me that you’re my husband.”
Promise looked up at her and saw that her face was tightened into something like a scowl, the way it always was when she bounded about doing everything, and that this was one of the things she would not back down from. He felt cornered. He didn’t feel anything for her at all. In fact, he’d not felt anything since that day his father had clamped his hand around burning pictures and told him to flee. But she’d been so useful to him and he did not want to say no lest she left the church, so he had told her that he would also go and pray to the Lord.
He went home and thought about it for weeks, and every time he was in church, it seemed Joyce was always close, looking at him, asking questions with her eyes. He wished then that she was not quite so active. He decided that he was going to pray and search the Bible for answers, because it was the only thing he knew to do. The Bible told him that anyone who found a wife found a good thing. So, he had taken that as a sign and said yes, the Lord said she was his wife.
Joyce had blitzed through the introduction and engagement and wedding, everything coming thick and fast. Promise had felt like an accessory, dragged along like a suitcase. Promise’s parents beamed all through, deeply pleased, like satiated cats.
They became spouses, and they have been that way for ten years. They have no children, but he and Mummy Joyce have been believing God, and she has said she will adopt if they are still childless in three years.
Pastor Promise tries to meet her halfway, but it has been mostly she who has made the marriage work all this time, solving all his problems, pointedly ignoring the ones she cannot solve, and Pastor Promise thinks he should tell her about this. Perhaps she will solve it. She has always known what to do, with her prancing and her slight scowl.
He sees her face, and then in his mind, it slowly melts into something like disgust and hatred, like the one his father had when he punished him. Her eyes are bright with hurt, her mouth twisted in repugnance because he has deceived her all these years. He sees her looking at him like he caught his mother doing occasionally after they had seen him with the pictures, like he was a strange-looking stray cat that wandered in and started eating all the food. He sees her walking away, the church members asking questions, the church failing.
And so he decides not to tell her.
Finally, Pastor Promise decides. He is slightly nervous, but mostly calm.
It wasn’t easy to decide. He had agonized over his dilemma in secret, kneeling for hours and trying to think or pray while his mind screamed recriminations and showed him Beulah, his face frozen in one of his innocent smiles. His mind is a schizophrenic thing these days.
Mummy Joyce is convinced something isn’t right. He has noticed her eyes follow him around, filled with worry. He hears her loud prayers where she demands that God comfort her husband and defeat his enemies because she does not understand what is going on. She has tried different ways to get him to talk. Sometimes she brought it up suddenly when they ate dinner together. Sometimes, she tried to bring it up in normal conversation, feigning nonchalance while asking “Hope everything is fine?”
One time, she even accused him of being unfaithful to her because he was keeping secrets from her. He assured her that he was faithful, that he was keeping no secrets, that he only loved her; and he knew he was lying, and his mind became even more accusatory, railing at him even more.
He executes his decision one day.
In his office, he sends for Beulah. When Beulah comes in, his swivel chair is turned around, and Beulah can only see his back. Pastor Promise does not want to see his face and the smile and his eyes that draw you in.
“You called sir,” Beulah says. When Pastor Promise hears his voice, he almost swivels to see him. The voice tugs at him, telling him to look for a minute. It is deep and warm and respectful and invites you to listen endlessly. Pastor Promise is heartbroken at what he is about to do.
“Yes, I called.”
“Is everything fine sir?” Beulah’s voice is full of concern. “You sound sick and we have barely seen you for almost a week now.”
“I’m not happy with you, Beulah.”
“Sir? Why?” The voice is soft and unsure now. Pastor Promise wants to turn and see Beulah’s face even more. He wants to apologise and say he is really joking. That everything is fine, really, especially him.
He goes on anyway.
“I have received complaints that you’ve been stealing church money.”
“Did I not speak clearly?”
“Me? Steal church money? I didn’t do anything like that sir. I’ve only been here a month sir.”
His voice is still deep and warm and respectful, and it irritates Pastor Promise. Why did he have to come here anyway? Everything was fine before the pastors appointed him. And now his voice is still calm. Didn’t he get angry? Pastor Promise wishes he did steal money. At least, he’d not be quite so faultless in this situation and that would be a small relief.
“What we found says you stole church money,” he snaps. “Or are you saying I’m lying?”
“No sir, but I…”
“Listen. I don’t want to disgrace you, so I want you to just quietly go to your office, pick your Bible, leave and never come back.”
There is a lull of hesitation. Pastor Promise imagines Beulah’s eyes are wide and disbelieving and confused and that his mouth is hanging open, trying to make sense of what is happening.
“But. But, sir, I…”
“I said go and pack your things!” Pastor Promise yells. He is glaring at the wall. “Or do you want me to announce this in the church? Do you want to be disgraced?”
“Go. And. Pack. Your. Things. And. Leave.”
He hears the door open and Beulah’s feet shuffle out the door. Then he puts his head in his hands.
“I am sorry,” he says, apologising to everything. Beulah, his office, God. “Forgive me. I had to do it.” His mind does not agree, and the condemnations get louder until Pastor Promise breaks down in tears.
“Beulah has left o,” Mummy Joyce says as they eat dinner.
“I know,” he replies. He watched Beulah from the window as he walked away and away, until he was out and he could no longer see him. He had wanted to rush downstairs and stop him and say sorry, all is fine. I lied. I was joking. Please stay.
“Did he really steal?” she asks, sceptical. She no longer handles accounts but she is still really up to date about everything that happens in the church.
“Yes,” he replies. “I said everything should be secret because I didn’t want to shame him. I even told the pastors that he left to another church.”
He feels her staring at him, doubtful. Then she continues eating. Everywhere is silent for a while except for the clinking of cutlery.
“And I really liked him o,” she says.
“Me too,” he replies, and there is a lot he doesn’t say.
Precious Oluwatobi Emmanuel is a 21-year old final year Law Student of the University of Ilorin. He enjoys rice, anime, cheesy sitcoms and dark rooms. He lives in Kano with his mom and three siblings, and in Abuja with his dad. He tweets @PreciousTobi_ and he has an obscure blog pretentiously called Just Saying (https://itsjustrambling.wordpress.com/)